Rivers, more than any road, technology, or political leader, have shaped the course of civilization. They have opened frontiers, founded cities, settled borders, and fed billions. They promote life, forge peace, grant power, and capriciously destroy everything in their path. And even as they have become increasingly domesticated, rivers remain a powerful global force, one that is more critical than ever to our future.
In Rivers of Power, geographer Laurence Smith takes a deep dive into the timeless and vastly underappreciated relationship between rivers and civilization as we know it. Rivers are of course important to us in all the obvious ways (like water supply, sanitation, transport, etc.). But they also shape us in less obvious ways. Massive amounts of river water support the global food trade; huge volumes are consumed to provide the world's electricity – not just by hydropower, but by coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants too; most of our globally important cities are positioned on the banks of rivers or river deltas. The territories of nations, their cultural and economic ties to one another, and the migrations of people trace to rivers and the topographic divides they carve on the world.
Beautifully told and expansive in scope, Rivers of Power, reveals how and why rivers have so profoundly shaped civilization, and examines the importance this vast, arterial power holds for our present, past, and future.
Laurence C. Smith, PhD is Professor and Chair of Geography and Professor of Earth, Planetary & Space Sciences at UCLA. He is frequently invited to give keynote speeches, and in 2012, 2014, 2016, he was an invited speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He is the author of The World in 2050, winner of the Walter P. Kistler Book Award and a Nature Editor's Pick of 2012. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the Financial Times, Discover Magazine, NPR, CBC Radio, BBC, and others.
"Smith takes readers on a tour of the world's great rivers. The result is fascinating, eye-opening, sometimes alarming, and ultimately inspiring."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction
"A tour de force – a narrative as powerful as the rivers he documents. He is up there with Jared Diamond – a storyteller with real craft. From Herodotus musing on the Nile to the dam makers of modern China, this is their story."
– Fred Pearce, author of When The Rivers Run Dry
"This book about rivers is as fascinating as it is beautifully written"
– Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Upheaval
"Passionate [...] and infectiously enthusiastic [...] an eclectic journey through several millennia."
– Victor Mallet, The Financial Times
"Instructive and entertaining. Smith's prose is clear and he explains scientific concepts well."
– The Times
"A hymn to hydrology ancient and modern."
– The Spectator
"With scholarship, literary flair, and a personal touch, Smith takes the reader on a fascinating and surprising voyage of discovery. He also sounds a clarion call for all of us to invest in protecting our rivers as a means of improving our own lives."
– Eric Jay Dolin, bestselling author of Black Flags, Blue Waters
"How can one write a world history of rivers? Laurence C. Smith triumphantly meets the challenge, fluently comparing the role of rivers in wartime, in trade, in water management, in floods and droughts, and, looking to the future, in a world of rising temperatures."
– David Abulafia, author of The Boundless Sea
"Engaging, informative, magisterial in its coverage, intimidating in the scope of its command of the material, there's no end to the good things to be said about this book."
– Geography Realm
"Absorbing. Smith is not only an excellent storyteller, he is also perhaps the world's leading scientist using satellites to unlock the secrets of the planet's rivers. His deep understanding will inspire readers to see rivers in wholly new and surprising ways. "
– Paul Bates, Professor of Hydrology, University of Bristol
"Smith demonstrates compellingly and engagingly that rivers have played a key role in the development of nations and, indeed, of humankind itself."
– Professor Julian Dowdeswell, Director of the Scott Centre for Polar Research, University of Cambridge